HWL Finals: India braces for Argentine challenge

Having progressed to the Hockey World League semifinal after remarkably defeating Belgium in a tense penalty shootout, the Indian hockey team now braces itself to face Olympic champion Argentina on Friday.

Indian players celebrate during their quarterfinal win over Belgium on Wednesday.   -  Biswaranjan Rout

Roller-coasters are not for the faint-hearted or lily-livered. Taking the risk in such a condition could result in a lot of messiness around. But the Indian team at the Hockey World League Finals here seems intent on dragging the fans through such rides every time it steps on the field.

The side surprised everyone with a structured attacking game to hold defending and world champion Australia in the opening game, then went blank to drop to alarming levels in the next two games, raising questions on whether the players even knew what they were supposed to do. Then it flipped again, this time stunning a seemingly unbeatable Belgium in the quarterfinal in shootouts. That game, in itself, was a microcosm of the team's journey through the tournament so far.

Coach Sjoerd Marijne's player-driven process seems to finally be up and running, once again. “After the match, (captain) Manpreet Singh sat with the team and said you can feel happy with the win but there is a match coming up. I am happy that I don’t have to say that, that a player sets an example on how to approach the next match,” he declared on the eve of the semifinal against Argentina, which edged past England 3-2 in its quarterfinal on Thursday.

READ: India trumps Belgium in a thriller

The Indian team did have a different plan against Belgium but Argentina will be a different test. The Pan-American and Olympic champion World No. 1 side is far removed from the middling outfit it used to be till a couple of years ago but its doggedness and defensive
play has remained firm, not the least exemplified by its goalkeeper Juan Vivaldi.

Gonzalo Peillat's drag-flicks haven't fired as much as he would have wished and that makes him doubly dangerous. Ask the Germans, who bore the brunt of his coming to form at just the right moment during the Rio Olympics semifinals.

What has been added is a penchant to attack more and take risks upfront, and it has paid off for them. Agustin Mazzilli, Matias Paredes, Lucas Vila, Ignacio Ortiz and Matias Rey bring the full force of their experience to crash through opposition defences. India would do well to be careful not to concede PCs – England managed that on Thursday even though it lost – or the tiniest of spaces in defence while indulging in its favourite mode of counter-attack. An extra rest day compared to their opponents might also help the Indians regroup.

The statistics are not too helpful. India has the upper hand overall, struggled in the past 10 face-offs but won the last time the teams met, in the league stage of Rio Olympics – the only loss for the eventual champion through the tournament.

Stats by B.G. Joshi

Particulars

MP

W

D

L

GF

GA

Total

48

26

4

18

118

90

In HWL (Raipur, Nov 2015)

1

0

0

1

0

3

Last 10 encounters

10

3

1

6

19

28

The two sides last faced-off in a pool match at the Rio Olympics, where India won 2-1.

Manpreet himself needs to pick himself up. Undoubtedly one of the most skillful players in the world today, the Indian captain has been just average and would be desperate to get back to the lofty standards he has set for himself. The forwards, good as they have been, need to get that last touch in and release the ball early. But then these are things the team would already be aware of. “They know what success is. Already for me the consistency is getting better and better. It’s good for India. They put up a standard, that's a good thing. But most important is they know how they did it. So we can do it tomorrow also,” Sjoerd Marijne added.

ALSO READ: Attacking hockey need of the hour for India heading into QF

On Friday, the hoarse crowds would be hoping for a more sedate affair when the host takes on Argentina in the semifinal of the competition, hoping to go one step ahead of its third-place finish two years back. Hoarse because of all the screaming the 10,000 people in the stands – more than the official capacity of 9,000 – did in the quarterfinal against Belgium to unnerve the Olympic silver medalist. But the bets are off.

Friday's schedule: Semifinal: India vs Argentina (7.30 pm IST)

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